An email first written on June 18, 2008:
I’ve finished reading J. D. Watson’s new book "Avoid boring people". I’ve also read a modern Taiwanese novel "十年的你 " by 藤井樹 (real name 吳子雲) kind of in parallel but I finished the latter first. Both books are very good read in different ways.
"十年的你 " really gives you a feeling about what a modern novel should be. It’s very refreshing, different but at the same time as intimate as if somebody were whispering the story next to your ear. Another now slightly senior writer (蔡智恒) who started 10 years ago has also given me a feeling of writing of a new epoch. It’s absolutely unlike those old folks 魯迅、老舍 etc. and even relatively younger 張愛玲 (whom I’d read a bit recently too) seems centuries away … These are like books of our era and in societies that we live in …. While reading, it’s like some kind of genuine felicity and alacrity flowing through my body. Occassionally, I feel like I can write one as well (if only I could have more "creativity" ) !!!
…. "十年的你 " is romantically fascinating … Watson’s book is professionally fascinating — highly recommended !
With illusion, I feel that if Watson’s book existed 20/30 years ago and I could have read it, things might be very different today Watson was one of the 3 who got the 1962 Medicine/Physiology Nobel Prizes for solving the DNA structure etc. This is autobiography from childhood to Nobel Prize, Harvard prof., to a director in Cold Spring Harbor Lab. At the end of each chapter, there are "Remembered Lessons" which give you all sorts of advice especially an academic guy should want to read and mull over. The advice seems to be very utilitarian … which includes "seek out bright as opposed to popular friends", "never be the brightest in your room" …. Actually, "avoid boring people" appears twice, as the first "boring" is an adjective (avoid people who are boring) whereas the 2nd one is a gerund (avoid doing/saying things to make people bored)…
Watson seemed to have made many right decisions, eg. he had the sense to pick a young thesis advisor instead of that year’s Nobel Prize winner when he first came to Indiana — one of his advice. He turned to do "phage" instead of Drosophila …and got a lot of help from his "phage" advisors — who actually got Nobel Prize a few years after he did
Unavoidably, Watson mentioned again (!) the DNA story when he was in Cambridge (Britain). I immediately remember our compulsory BNL ethics "training" web course called "Research with Integrity". That’s the first time that I heard about this story. Now, I’ve read much more (in this book and online) and that course perhaps biases a bit too much to want one to feel really bad for R. Franklin. That course said "In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins jointly received the Nobel Prize for their determination of the structure of DNA. Though acknowledged in the paper, Franklin did not share in this award." But that web course didn’t mention an important fact that Franklin died in 1958 (4 years before the Nobel …) ! This is important because Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.
A colleague told me that Discovery channel probably has had a program for this (probably recycled many many times now). Not sure what the Discovery program said, but Watson has given a lot of analyses again (!) so many years later, Watson/Crick obviously have got a lot of help but it’s obviously because they’re talking to everybody and all the relevant people. Franklin in fact pointed out to Watson about his first attempt of a 3-chain helix was wrong. Linus Pauling in Caltech (Nobel winner and 20th century chemistry giant) published a similar 3-chain helix model but he didn’t have Franklin to point out the mistake — but it’s also because Pauling saw no need to assimilate the ideas and facts of others. Franklin didn’t believe in "helix" at all and her going to ask the Oxford crystallographer (who was the best in UK and had solved structures of penecillin, B12 etc. … Nobel winner later) was a mistake as Franklin kind of got insulted and lost faith in her crystallography acumen. She should have gone to ask Crick. Or, if she’s willing to team up with Wilkins (colleague at King’s), their pairing would very likely beat Watson/Crick. Franklin seeing her own X-ray photo had got no ideas — as she was so sure that DNA couldn’t be helix; whereas Watson immediately got convinced that it must be a helix and he went on to form the double helix (though he got another help from a Caltech guy in sabbatical in Cambridge to point out a mistake in the textbook which he needed to use !) …
And surfing in the webpage, in fact, Watson/Crick let Franklin’s group and Wilkins’ group publish the results together with their own paper on the same issue on Nature in 1953 simultaneously. Watson/Crick already acknowledged the unpublished results/ideas from Franklin in their Nature paper —> I think they’d covered their asses even legally. Wilkins showing Watson/Crick wasn’t that a big deal … If Sam Ting didn’t know Stanford’s finding J/Psi (also thru’ informal channel), he wouldn’t try to publish his result (at BNL !) in a hurry — together with Stanford… … But anyway, Franklin died 4 years before the Nobel Prize was awarded …
One of Watson’s advice is that "science is highly social" — I somehow didn’t quite understand this 10/15 years ago (say) but after all these years, I have had to agree with him ( … and if he could have let me know 15 years ago !!). People around him tend to be Nobel Prize winners of some sorts … I’m happy that my travelling around the world quite a bit has also helped me understand what he was talking about. Watson made all sorts of relationship… Even a French ski resort that I had been at least once was developed by one of his fellow biologist’s brother …
But I think he’s kind of outspoken. He published the DNA discovery story in 1968 in a book called "Double Helix". The other 2 Nobel laureates didn’t want him to and even tried to prevent him from doing so. They succeeded that as it didn’t get published by Harvard U. Press but at the end it was published and we knew all the above interesting story.
It’s also interesting that Watson backed the former Harvard President’s comment that there is a non-zero probablity that the relative small no. of women in physical science might have something to do with the genetics (innate !). But that President was dismissed for this comment.
Interestingly, today when I checked the webpage, when he went to London to promote this new book in Oct. 2007, he hinted (in my words) that there was a non-zero probability that the African might be less intelligent due to genetics. This forced him to retire from the Chancellor position at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab. (CSHL) in Long Island several days later. But as he was approaching 80, it’s about time anyway ….
Probably, he can continue to write another book reviewing his CSHL experience … and obviously with another "Remembered Lesson" !! One still has something to learn at the age of 80…..
The last part that I’d like to mention is that he mentions many many girls/women in his book from his school days to his professorship at Harvard. As a Harvard prof., he went to hang around with Radcliffe College girls (at least indirectly his students). Though he never said whether he slept with any of those girls/women mentioned in the book, I’d assume at least some. At the end, when he was 39 (–> 40) and married a 19 year old (–> 20) Radcliffe girl, you’d not be surprised at all !!!
I believe that I’ve probably violated another one of Watson’s advice : "Avoid boring people" ….